It seems like every day we are bombarded with a new report about just how dirty, gross, and germ-covered everything we touch is. Your iPhone is dirtier than a toilet! Your handbag is grosser than your toilet iPhone! Is there anything out there not covered in fecal bacteria? And, more importantly, do these germ-ridden objects actually pose a legit threat to our health (other than royally grossing us out, that is)?
First, it's important to recognize the fact that we are covered in microbial species, a.k.a. germs. Literally. There are approximately one trillion just chilling on you, head-to-toe, at any given moment. Yet we live in a germaphobe and Purell-crazy society. But how bad are they for us — really? Well, depends on what germs we are talking about. Infectious diseases are the third leading cause of death, so clearly there is some call for concern, but at the same time, they’re hanging out on our body and every. Single. Thing we come in contact with.
And, believe it or not, germs do have some pros. They are essentially your immune system’s BFF. “We need to be exposed to the so-called everyday strains of organisms, so as to challenge our immune system to make protective antibodies to be activated in times when our bodies may be weaker — such as post injury, surgery, or cancer,” says Donna M. Duberg, assistant professor of Clinical Laboratory Science at Saint Louis University.
But don't go licking subway poles just yet: There is a fine germ line that can easily be crossed. “Exposure to too many organisms, for example a lot of one kind or some of different kinds of germs, can overwhelm our bodies' defenses," she says. "Or exposure to the ‘wrong’ bacteria, such as those which are almost always pathogenic and will usually make us at least a little sick." Enter the tiny critters that lead to flu, colds, and all that fun stuff.
Not only are these tiny microorganisms in every form on your body, they are everywhere. “There are almost always bacteria, viruses, and fungi (such as mold and yeasts) in every bathroom and kitchen — we bring them into our living areas with the food we buy, on our shoes, purses, and so on,” says Duberg. And research shows that your kitchen is actually ‘dirtier’ in terms of germs than anywhere else. Especially office kitchens, and, well, offices in general. Think about it: when was the last time you cleaned your keyboard? And do you really think anyone wipes down the elevator button? Doubt it. This fascinating TED talk by Dr. Charles P. Gerba, a professor at the Colleges of Public Health and Agriculture, University of Arizona, has some pretty amazing information about germs and how they are most commonly spread. We highly recommend a viewing, if only to make you more aware of your current habits and how they could be sabotaging your health.
So, if you can’t beat em’ join em? “There are two ways to look at the health and sickness issue if you have a healthy immune system: You should be able to handle many of the germs that you come in contact with daily,” says Duberg. “And if you come in contact with a germ that you don’t usually encounter (for example, many of the cold and flu viruses), or if the amount of microorganisms (bacterial, viral, etc.) is more than is normally encountered, you will, more than likely, become ill.”
Purell time? Not quite: “Alcohol-based sanitizers are an effective method of killing germs (bacteria and viruses) on our hands, but really only needs to be used when soap and water are not available ,” she says. This is also the position the Centers for Disease Control takes on the issue, FYI.
Just because these germs are unavoidable doesn't mean you should give up on personal hygiene — protect yourself, within reason (i.e. don't try to become Bubble Girl in an effort to avoid all germs). Hand-to-mouth action is the number one-way to spread germs, something the average person does 16 times per hour. So, for the love of all things holy, put your hands down. And nowhere near your mouth, unless freshly washed, or your eyes and nose for that matter, adds Duberg. And give your iPhone, your desk phone, doorknobs, and all that other stuff you touch all freaking day long a sanitary wipedown to keep the germ fest to a minimum.